To us, the ashes of our ancestors are sacred and their resting place is hallowed ground. Chief Seattle, Native American leader, 1786-1866
Struggling to stay asleep one pre-dawn morning this past week, having read too many news headlines too late before bed, my mind was unquiet and racing. Germs, quarantines, masks, isolation, shortages, layoffs. I tried several tactics to relax, to stop thinking and to just breathe and be. But peace did not find me. Closer to 4 a.m. suddenly all four of my grandparents clearly entered my thoughts. Charles, Rose, Mary and Angelo. The thoughts of them collectively were not of old memories, of times shared. The thought that arrived like a missile was: It’s in you, it’s in your DNA. And that was all. No lullaby. No warm touch. Just this message to untangle and decipher.
All week long I thought of the DNA message and of my four grandparents who were born between 1906 and 1911. I learned of them by their own storytelling and by the stories I heard about them. My grandparents were children in 1916, at the beginning of years of ongoing polio epidemics in our country; and in the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 and during World War I. They were teenagers during the devastation of the Great Depression caused by the stock market crash of 1929. They were in their twenties during World War II. Their early lives were met with the excruciating challenges life dealt families, especially immigrant families, finding their way just over a hundred years ago.
Unrelenting worry of disease and poor health; employment and financial security impacted families in both long and short term ways. Yet all somehow coped with multiple adversities together, each family and extended family, cobbling together a plan, some way to make sense of the loss and uncertainty of such uncharted times.
Since that sleepless dawn morning, it became the story of my paternal grandfather, Angelo, that provided me the route to begin the excavation into the cryptic 4 a.m. DNA message. There are many parts of my grandfather’s life I do not know of. But the stories I heard, and heard again, over my life remind me why Angelo came to mind first in front of the three other grandparents.
Angelo, was five-years-old when he came across the Atlantic from Palermo, Sicily on a ship called the Venezia, with his 24-year-old mother and one-year-old brother, Sam. Daring to think of the conditions for a young, married woman traveling solo, her husband awaiting her and their sons in America, is daunting, even petrifying.
Arriving on New Year’s Eve of 1911, after nearly a month on the ship, a new life awaited of uncertainty and wrought with mystery and fear. Once through Ellis Island, the woman, my great grandmother, was met by a family member and they began a long road journey to the Pennsylvania coal mining country.
Angelo was a young teenager when he started to work in the dark, dangerous coal mines. He did his part to help his family stake a claim in the new country. Collapses, entrapment and floods were a pervasive fear each day. But a paycheck had to be awarded. The job had to get done. A job that filled Angelo’s every breath, year after year, with deadly coal dust.
My great grandfather, Giuseppe, found the means to open the West End Market in their established hometown of Pittston. Sam and Angelo worked both in the mines and the market. Known for fresh fruits and vegetables, breads and cheeses, the market was prosperous and provided well for the family. By his generosity to help his community, Giuseppe allowed regular market patrons to pay on credit. Each tally etched in a ledger to be paid later. But the impact of the Depression hit hard. There would be no later. Jobs lost. No money. Giuseppe could no longer sustain his Market, forced to close in 1931. Angelo was 25-years-old. Two years later Giuseppe took his own life in despair of having lost the way to provide for his family.
Angelo left Pittston with his wife Mary and their three children and moved North to Connecticut. Another chance. A fresh start. He was a prosperous respected business man and labor leader. But the years in the mines were imbedded in the depths of each breath. A tall green, ominous oxygen tank, his lifeline, always nearby. I do not recall many lengthy conversations with my grandfather. His few words were faint and breathless. We often sat quietly. At the age of 65 Angelo died from pneumoconiosis, Black Lung disease. I was 10 years old. He was a giver. He cared. It was in his DNA.
Bless the elders of our collective tribes who have gone before us, who sacrificed to journey here for a better life. That we may thank them from across the veil, just a breath away— always there. Reach across. They can reach back, you will see. Reaching our hearts and minds.
The perseverance and grit they put forth over one hundred years ago is in your blood. In you. And you will, like they did, tap into all that is needed to get through this most challenging and unprecedented time. And as Angelo did —look out to the days ahead. Set forth by providing loss its proper place. Begin to trust and hope will take hold and set root. Inch by inch, in time, with air and sunshine and care. Dig deep. It’s in you, it’s in your DNA.